The NHL and NHL Players' Association are pledging to look for answers in the wake of the league's third player death in a matter of months.
With a feeling of disbelief being felt throughout the hockey world after Wade Belak's body was found in a downtown hotel and condo building, the league and its players' union indicated Thursday that a review would be conducted on their substance abuse and behavioural health program.
“While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored,” said the statement. “We are committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events, and to determining whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place.
“Our organizations are committed to a thorough evaluation of our existing assistance programs and practices and will make immediate modifications and improvements to the extent they are deemed warranted.”
Toronto Police indicated they do not suspect foul play in the death of the 35-year-old Belak.
A source familiar with the situation confirmed to The Canadian Press that the recently retired player hanged himself in an apparent suicide Wednesday.
It was yet another tragic event for the hockey community, still reeling from the recent deaths of New York Rangers forward Derek Boogaard and Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien.
“There was a bunch of us actually golfing yesterday and as soon as we found out, you stop right away and think: `This is the third guy already this summer,“’ Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn told reporters Thursday at the team's practice facility. “It's hard to grasp and see why it's happening.”
The string of incidents has raised uncomfortable questions about a possible link between the difficult role each man played in the NHL and his untimely death.
Paul Bissonnette, an enforcer with the Phoenix Coyotes, understands why some people have made that connection. He has first-hand experience of how tough the job can be.
“Just playing that very limited role, in and out of the lineup, you feel worthless,” said Bissonnette. “I could see where that would probably wear on guys along with the fighting and getting hit in the head constantly.
“The amount of mind games we play with ourselves is very high and that's what people need to realize.”
Belak recently retired after spending parts of 14 seasons in the NHL. He was scheduled to work on the Nashville Predators' television and radio broadcasts this coming year and had recently travelled to Toronto to be a contestant on the CBC show “Battle of the Blades.”
It seemed like a natural transition for an affable player who rarely found a camera he didn't like.
That friendly demeanour was on display earlier this week when Belak was besieged by members of a youth hockey team while training for the figure skating show at an arena in nearby Mississauga, Ont.
“He was joking, he was happy,” said a parent of one of the players. “I didn't sense that anything was odd or off. He wasn't standoffish, he was absolutely open and didn't mind spending the time and just talking for a couple of minutes.
“He was great.”
Belak, a Saskatoon native, was a fan favourite during NHL stops in Nashville, Florida, Toronto, Calgary and Colorado. He registered eight goals and 25 assists in 549 career games while amassing 1,263 penalty minutes.
Belak even garnered a following in the United Kingdom after helping the Coventry Blaze win a championship during the NHL lockout. The team plans to honour him before its game on Saturday.
Like Rypien and Boogaard, Belak largely made his living with his fists. He fought 136 times during his NHL career, according to hockeyfights.com.
At least one general manager believes the fact all three men were fighters in the league will prompt some discussion about whether it should still have a place in the sport.
“I'm sure it will have an impact,” said Mike Gillis of the Vancouver Canucks. “I'm sure it will create debate. I know in the case of Rick (Rypien), I don't think we ever felt his role and how he played the game was influential in what happened. Perhaps we are wrong.
“We haven't felt that. We didn't feel that before when Rick struggled with some issues and we certainly don't feel that now.”
Rypien left the Canucks on two separate occasions while struggling with depression. He was found dead on Aug. 15 at his off-season home in Coleman, Alta., and police said his death was not suspicious.
Boogaard, 28, died May 13 at his Minneapolis apartment due to an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone.
After news started circulating about Belak's death on Wednesday night, Bissonnette's father stopped by his house to make sure he was OK.
Like Belak, the 26-year-old was a standout defenceman in junior who turned himself into a forward that fights in order to make it to the top as a pro. He acknowledged that it's a little scary to see what's happened to other enforcers this summer.
“I haven't been doing this as long as these guys have, the three guys that passed away,” said Bissonnette. “For me to comment on how I'm going to be in five to 10 years, I don't know.”
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